I once saw a high school teacher lead a simple, powerful exercise to teach his class about privilege and social mobility. He started by giving each student a scrap piece of paper and asked them to crumple it up.
Then he moved the recycling bin to the front of the room.
He said, “The game is simple — you all represent the country’s population. And everyone in the country has a chance to become wealthy and move into the upper class.”
“To move into the upper class, all you must do is throw your wadded-up paper into the bin while sitting in your seat.”
The students in the back of the room immediately piped up, “This is unfair!” They could see the rows of students in front of them had a much better chance.
Everyone took their shots, and — as expected — most of the students in the front made it (but not all) and only a few students in the back of the room made it.
He concluded by saying, “The closer you were to the recycling bin, the better your odds. This is what privilege looks like. Did you notice how the only ones who complained about fairness were in the back of the room?”
“By contrast, people in the front of the room were less likely to be aware of the privilege they were born into. All they can see is 10 feet between them and their goal.”
“Your job — as students who are receiving an education — is to be aware of your privilege. And use this particular privilege called “education” to do your best to achieve great things, all the while advocating for those in the rows behind you.”
Nathan W. Pyle
I first read this story on my kitchen table in Zurich and had an epiphany: I was close to the end of my one-year internship, and was working my tail off to get a work permit. For someone that comes from a non-European country, that was close to impossible. The company I was working for was more than satisfied with my performance and wanted to offer me a permanent position as an Investment Analyst, but the Swiss authorities had a different agenda: only 4000 work permits annually for non-EU residents, usually reserved for top talents with years of experience.
Never before had I thought how a spin of a life roulette can define our life paths. Does the family that we are born into, nationality, religion or even gender really define us? My instant answer would be ‘NO’, but then I found myself at the rear row of the classroom, unable to hit the recycling bin. My brains, my knowledge and performance, the five languages that I speak fluently were just not enough to pursue my passion. I wasn’t sitting in the first rows. Period!
I came back to Serbia exhausted and with damaged health. I had to regroup and refuel. What was I aiming for? What was my recycling bin? I have spent years abroad living and working in the USA, Hungary, Germany and now Switzerland. Each time I couldn’t wait to come home to my loving family and put my international experience into use. This time was different. I felt that I have outgrown my city and on top of that I experienced a reverse cultural shock like never before. Yet, being an eight generation successor of a family that had moved to Niš some 200 years ago, why would I be the one who breaks the chain?
As a well-respected family of traders, my family was working their way up and managed to earn a considerable wealth for the time. Then after the Second World War, most of their possessions were nationalized by the socialist regime in Yugoslavia. They had to rebuild their lives from scratch and succeeded to get back on their feet. Thanks to their hard work, I was the one sitting in the front rows here, in Serbia. I had a good basis to have a nice and successful life in my hometown. A tingling thought occurred: Would it really reflect my true potential? Am I able to go trough life with nothing more than my wits and hard work, like my family did years before? Most importantly, would I be satisfied and proud of my accomplishments when I find myself at my last hours of my time here? I had to find out.
I was sending tons of job applications to every ad in Germany and Switzerland that matched my skills and experience. As a rule, all the responses I got back were sounding something like “Thank you for your time and interest in our company. Unfortunately, we have decided…” I had to do something different… The plan that was unfolding in my mind was giving me a slight panic attack. Next thing I know, I was booking a flight to Frankfurt and flying in a week.
The idea was to sign up for an intensive German class to brush up my language skills, and basically network as much as possible, send a bunch of job applications and sign up for every head hunting agency in Frankfurt. As I booked the flight on such a short notice, I couldn’t find an available AirBnB that could accommodate me for the whole time I was staying there. I thought to myself, since I anyway have to move every couple of weeks, why don’t I find something for free? I immediately updated my CouchSurfing account and started sending requests to hosts.
As the wheels started turning, I was feeling more and more certain that I was doing the right thing. Instead of being an passive victim of circumstance, I chose to man up and take a shot. I was terrified to death and ecstatic at the same time.
The Big City
The hosts on CouchSurfing started replying and I soon found a host for the first four days. Stephan was a wonderful guy that welcomed me with a nice dinner and a pleasant conversation and chipped off a bit of my anxious edges that I felt about this whole adventure. My crazy plan suddenly started to unfold and become reality. The next six weeks would either make me or break me.
In the mornings I was attending 3-hour German classes, that really helped revive my rusty B2 German knowledge. The classes and regular post-class conversations with a few dear friends that I made at the course helped me to quickly regain my confidence and vocabulary. The afternoons were reserved for sending endless job applications to the ads on Monster.de and eFinanceCareers.com that had anything to do with investments. In the evenings I would usually meet some of my friends or visit networking events organized by InterNations.org or MeetUp.com.
My busy schedule was soon giving some results. In the first ten days in Frankfurt, I got myself two interviews. This was a good sign that I was on the right track and that my crazy plan wasn’t so crazy after all. Still, as I had gotten more and more interviews, I had experienced glimpses of the Swiss déjà vu. My nationality was not right. My German skills were not enough. It seemed I was hitting the same wall again.
The Beauty of Failure
During my time in Frankfurt I have sent out 143 applications, I had 17 interviews, I contacted 14 people from my network and reached out to 4 headhunting agencies, I was taking part in all-German case studies, where people not only spoke fast, but spoke with different accents that were hard to understand, I took 3 tests that were measuring different professional, language and cognitive skills.
In the end I didn’t land my dream job. And it didn’t matter. I was happy! Proud! Empowered even! The struggle I had was challenging, but very important. It showed me that I have the character and strength to go above and beyond to fulfill my dreams. The fact that I have failed now, just means that I was one step closer to success.
The sweetest victories are often the ones that are most difficult. The ones that require you to reach down deep inside, to fight with everything you’ve got, to be willing to leave everything out there on the battlefield without knowing, until that do-or-die moment, if your heroic effort will be enough. Exactly those failures are the steppingstones to one’s later success.
P.S. Many thanks to my lovely hosts that have opened their homes and their hearts during my stay in Frankfurt! Without Stephan, Simon, Žana and Werner, Nikola and Maja, Dirk, Đorđe and Beto my Frankfurt adventure wouldn’t be possible!